A Report to the Cabal:
Hey, I'm not going to teach fine sculpting here. I'm simply not yet qualified to do so, I would class myself as a Journeyman at this point - I have much to learn before I can lay claim to any real proficiency at the craft. However, I am farther along with the craft than most of you; I can certainly teach the basics of sculpting; to get you over the humps you likely have encountered. This is offered as a nudge, from one amateur to another, to help you get back on track with your own remedial sculpting efforts.
Unlike proper model building (trash and kit-bashing is not proper model building) --which is a disciplined and exacting process -- sculpting is a freeform activity that is learned through practice more than by following specific directions. The quality of your sculpting work is a direct result of the time you spend practicing the craft. And equally important, is to study the subjects you wish to craft. In support of the later task, I recommend that you buy some books, some dealing with the sculpting process specifically, and others that illustrate the human anatomy. Study that material and us it as reference as you practice the craft.
Since sculpting requires minimal tools and shop space it is a craft you can take with you just about anywhere. For example, sitting at my computer, logged in at a CultTVman chat, I fiddle with a sculpt between posts. It's one of the few model building activities you can do comfortably out of the shop.
Remember those scenes in the movie, The Mechanic, where Charles Bronson's character is always squeezing a ball of wax? Your objective, by practicing your craft, is (hopefully) different from that of Bronson's character, but the discipline and love of craft on display in that movie is something you should (if you're serious about the craft) emulate in real life. And if you are not actively sculpting, you should be out there, in the real world, paying close attention to peoples faces and form -- sorting out in your head the specific features that so powerfully identify race, sex, age, health, and grooming styles -- observations that will find direct application as you give form to clay. It's the constant practice of your craft, whenever and wherever you can, that will improve your work.
There is no such thing as innate talent (your inherited genes dictates your potential). I am so sick and tired of unaccomplished, undisciplined, scatter-brained idiots rationalizing the high degree of my model work away with a dismissive, "well, after all, you're born with that talent, some of us weren't so lucky".
We human's are empty vessels at birth, some of us posses a larger volume, but, like the others, start empty. It's up to you to fill your head and train your hands as you go through life. The degree to which you achieve success in any chosen endeavor is governed by how well you exploit your environment; your life plan, how studious you are, the efficiency of your execution of the plan, and how much time you invest on the practice and study of your chosen field. Unless you are mentally and/or physically retarded, there is no excuse for not becoming the best at any activity you chose!
Winners are simply that minority of humans who have both great potential and the desire to prevail over all competition. And life is a competition, be it a profession, or a hobby, or a sport. Those who say otherwise are miserable failures, with a pressing need to deny reality. Those who practice Political Correctness deny reality. Winners don't need excuses or rationalization/justification of failed effort -- they simply work at the problem till failure is replaced by success. The magic ingredients are: an adequate environment, reasonably sound genes, ambition, and discipline.
It's the accident of birth that dumps you in the arms of either an AIDS ravaged Mother in Nigeria or into the embrace of wealthy, loving parents in America. Likely your personal situation sits somewhere between those extremes. If your circumstance grants you the leisure time to sculpt, then the degree of competency you achieve in the craft will be driven by your capacity to learn and your passion.
Good work comes from a man who never settles for second-place! Success is a result of one's dissatisfaction with anything less than perfection (you must always be dissatisfied, and tough enough to get back on the horse each time you fail. You will always fail, but you must never succumb to that undeniable fact). The world is littered with those who rationalize their mediocrity with pat little excuses, be they real or fabricated!
We all have our visual passions, and some of those can be best expressed through modeling. For most of us, it's hard to get terribly emotional building and examining a P51 or a Sherman tank. However, the sculpting of the human form, in its many types and situations, can evoke deep feelings on the audience and builder alike. Through clay you can tell a vivid and compelling story: you little display, capturing a moment in time; in that frozen-in-amber instant: your little model human is seen as a sympathetic character, engaged in some compelling activity; a dynamic moment that evokes all kinds of powerful and moving emotions from your audience.
For example, a well done sculpt of Charles Forbin, the character in the movie, the Forbin Project, looking up defiantly, issuing that single powerful word. Do it right and you can get your audience, those in the know, to leave the display both shaken and inspired; their spirits lifted, buoyed by the reaffirmation of mans potential, dignity and strength in the face of adversity. Sculpting, as few other forms of the craft, can be a very expressive tool in the hands of the thoughtful and skilled model builder.
OK, enough with what the work can do. Now, on to the mechanics of sculpting:
Often multiple copies of the sculpt are desired. This involves imparting some mechanical stress on the finished sculpt as it is mounted in a dam network, and is pulled and pushed out of the hardened rubber tool. The physical strength and chemical compatibility of the clay becomes an issue once the decision is made to use it to form a mold. Each type clay, be it earthen or synthetic (the isothermic and exothermic curing types, as well as the oil-based clays), present their own unique sets of problems that have to be overcome if the mold making operation is to be successful.
Earthen clays are difficult because when they are allowed to dry the material shrinks and sometimes cracks. To achieve additional hardness to this water-based clay, firing of the work in a kiln is required, which presents its own array of problems, like the possibility of destroying the work, not to mention the expense and logistics of getting the work to a kiln and having that facility do the job right. Also the high sulfur content in the traditional earthen clays inhibits the cure of most Silicon based room temperature vulcanizing mold making rubbers -- the work has to be 'glazed' or overcoated with a barrier medium to isolate the clays sulfur from the mold making rubber. You'll find these clays at art supply stores. If you need a mold built up over the raw material you are best served making a 'waste' plaster mold -- a one-shot affair usually associated with the metal casting process ... which is a bit removed from the aim of this discussion.
The exothermic curing epoxy based clays don't wait for the Craftsman. Once they are prepared, they undergo a relentless hardening process that must be accommodated for by the sculptor. Typical model building epoxy based modeling mediums include, but are not limited to, Milliput, Plumber's putty, and Iron filled pipe-repair kits (the sort of stuff you find at a hardware stores like Lowe's, Hechinger's, and HQ).
Oil based synthetic clay are, in my opinion, unsuitable for long term pieces or for tool making. This type clay cannot be hardened, unless you are prepared to create your mold by entirely encapsulating the master in one pour, necessitating slitting of the tool and scooping out the clay, destroying the work. As you can't harden oil-based clay, you have to exercise extreme care not to mare completed work as you move over to other areas of the work that demand you attention -- very irritating stuff! Yet there are artisan's who do absolutely incredible things with this medium.
The isothermic curing clays, the PVC baking types such as Sculpey, tend to be brittle and relatively weak when in their hardened state. This makes them prone to breakage if not supported from within by some sort of armature. Hobby shops and art supply stores are where you'll find this stuff. The temperature at which this clay hardens is critical -- too low and you don't get a complete cure, just a bit too hot and you scorch the work.
I've played with most of the above sculpting mediums and the one I've settled on (not only for sculpts, but also for some specialized model parts as well) is Super Sculpey. This material is bake hardened PVC. The external application of heat (isothermic heating) -- applied only when you wish to harden the work -- permits you to selectively harden the work as you progress with the job.
As Super Sculpey arrives in the package the stuff is a little to stiff to work comfortably -- at room temperature Sculpey is just a tad bit softer than fresh C-4 plastic explosive (Does Homeland Security monitor these sites?).
Sculpey is best prepared for sculpting work by extensive kneading with hand or running it through a pasta press, or heavy duty food blender. After such mechanical stressing of the medium the clay becomes very malleable; receptive for working by fingers and common sculpting tools.
Sculpey is shaped with the same type tools as earthen clay, but unlike natural clays, the Sculpey will remain plastic for years at a time without refrigeration or a moisture rich environment ... I've worked Sculpey that has been sitting in an open box for over five years, all I had to do was brush the dust off, run it through the pasta rollers a few times, and the Sculpey was good to go. The stuff will only harden when baked (temperature is critical -- between 225 and 275 degrees).
To do a head it's my practice to make a simple armature of the stuff, bake it hard, then to build up most of the sculpt (head, limbs, and torso are usually done separately, all joined near the end of the work) and when I get to the point where detailing gets in the way of previous soft work, I bake it again. A typical head sculpt will involve at least five work/bake cycles.
A recent sculpt was this 1/12 Diver. Part of a USS ALLIGATOR display, a job commissioned as an element that appeared in a Discovery Science channel episode. Close examination of this sculpt reveals a very contrasty 'wash' -- the addition of a dark, well thinned paint to pick out the dark folds of clothing and creased body features (the exposed hands). This type finish aimed to please the non-critical eye of the camera, not the human eye. During my motion picture and TV effects miniature building days I learned that details and weathering had to be carried out to extremes to be caught by the camera and appreciated by the audience.
The diving helmet is a best-guess as to what kind of gear would have been used by a Union sailor deployed from the submerged ALLIGATOR, his mission to advance on and plant explosives to Confederate assets. As he worked out of the very tight confines of the lockout chamber located in the bow of the submarine, there would not be room for a proper Siebe type helmet and diving dress, so our Diver would go out wet, with only a simple, bucket-shaped helmet keeping his head dry and his lungs full of air. An interesting sculpt, and a rare opportunity to make use of my Navy Diving experiences and acquired model building skills.
Once the Sculpey 1/12 man figure was given a final baking it was shot with a coat of DuPont Lucite 131s Fill n' Sand automotive acrylic primer. I then applied touchup putty were required. Those steps repeated until an unblemished figure was in hand. I then produced a two-piece RTV silicon rubber tool from which I cast the required number of solid polyurethane resin figures. In support of our work on the Discovery Channel project, one cast resin figure was used by me to make the Diver one to Jim Christley who used his to form an ALLIGATOR crewman at an oar station -- part of a display that showed how the oars on the submarine were likely articulated.
Wherever practical I prefer to work from model parts which are copies of a master I produce. This of course necessitated the creation of a tool (mold) from which to either lay up the parts from GRP or to cast the item from polyurethane resin or metal. In the case of my USS ALLIGATOR Diver figure, I made a 1/12 man figure from Sculpey, used it to create a rubber tool, and from that produced the required number of solid resin figures (one for me and another for the production historian, Jim Christley). Working with Jim, and Tim Smalley on the Discovery Science Channel production, The Hunt For The Alligator, was an interesting and most rewarding experience -- most of the effects work I had done previous to that had been of subjects that I had no particular fondness for. The ALLIGATOR job was a real thrill, from beginning to end.
You're looking at quit a collection of substrates here: machined and rolled brass sheet and stock; cast polyurethane resin; iron filled epoxy 'Plumber's putty'; eighteen-gauge conductor and sail-twine (the umbilical hose); lead; and CA-baking soda filler. After taking a generic figure casting and breaking the head and other appendages off, I repositioned them to achieve an 'action' pose, i.e., the Diver marching over the muddy bottom, against a current, on his way to plant a mine. I 'dressed' the diver in a shirt, pants, and boots formed from quick-curing, rough of texture, Plumber's putty -- the stuff was OK to work with but not at all comparable to the easy working, long-curing Milliput. Note that the belt, buckle and belt loops were also sculpted from Plumber's putty.
A bit out of the preview of this discussion is the methods and materials used to paint and detail a sculpt, but here you see some of the basics. The figure, before any painting begins, is worked to near perfection by filling dings and doing slight contour changes with fillers and putties, followed by a primer, or base coat. With this figure a dark base-coat for the clothing and a lighter one for the flesh portions. The base coat becomes the substrate over which the colors, in this example water soluble acrylics, are laid down with bristle and spray brushes. Note that the sculpt is temporarily mounted to a handling base. With an occasional assist from a hot-air gun, the paints dried very quickly. If you want to blend colors you are better served to use Artist's oils. As I wanted a very contrasty appearance for the camera, I went with the stark-of-color demarcation characteristics of quick-drying acrylics.
Not all sculpting is done through the 'addition' process, where clay or a clay like substance is piled up and shaped. These 1/96 crew member figures I built for the SEAVIEW Observation Compartment kit were hacked out of plastic. I worked these figures with knife, pick, and Jeweler's files.
Though a small fraction of the overall job of producing a kit, figure work is nonetheless a vital element and will either enhance or detract from the overall appeal of the finished product. Quality Model Building is achieved only because the Model Builder has embraced a huge number of fabrication techniques and has become proficient with each. Sculpting, be it threw the addition or reduction process, is but one of many skills needing to be mastered.
The 1/96 SEAVIEW Observation Compartment will soon be a resin and metal kit offered by the CultTVman Hobby Shop. Release is expected to be by the end of this year.
An alternative to baking PVC clays (like Sculpey), are the exothermic curing epoxy pasts, and putties. Some are formulated specifically for sculpting, others for unrelated industrial and household repair work. I've worked with many of the formulations available to the general public and the only one I keep coming back to is Milliput. Like all the others, Milliput is a two-part, 50/50 mix of part-A to part-B. The amount needed is mixed and a period of time is permitted to work the mailable highly filled epoxy to shape. Most of 'em cure hard within three hours, but are workable for maybe an hour. I have seen excellent pieces sculpted from this type medium -- its simply a personal choice as to what medium you are comfortable sculpting with. Right now, at this basic stage of proficiency, I'm happy with how Sculpy works ... who knows, as I become more confident with the technique and speed up my production time, maybe I will make the switch to epoxy mediums in the future. We'll see.
A portion of my 'rogues gallery.' When possible I retain, for later study, my own work, be it commissioned or for my own amusement and training. Sculpting, like any other manual activity, is learned from doing.
1/6 posable wooden figures can be bought at most big art supply stores. These two, one proportioned as a male, the other as a female, are used to help me get a figures pose down before I build an armature and slap Sculpey on it. Being a physical model, these wooden mannequins are handled and observed as I work the sculpt at hand. These are excellent reference tools which do much to keep you from posing your figure in an impossible or awkward stance.